Since the end of the Cold War, Beijing has viewed Washington as its chief geopolitical rival, yet official Washington has only recently awakened to this strategic competition. But as American observers start to see China’s ambitions more clearly, they have also begun to misdiagnose the challenges they pose. Political scientists are discussing “power-transition theory” and the “Thucydides trap,” as if China were on the verge of eclipsing the United States in wealth and power, displacing it on the world stage. There are two contradictory problems with this view.
The first is that this is not how the Chinese themselves understand their rise. When Chinese President Xi Jinping calls for the Chinese to realize the “China dream of national rejuvenation,” he is articulating the belief that China is simply reclaiming its natural political and cultural importance. China is not, as was once said of imperial Germany after its unification, “seeking its place in the sun.” Rather, it is retaking its rightful place as the sun.
The second is that it’s an open question whether China will achieve rejuvenation in the face of both a seemingly stagnating economy and party factionalism. Xi is more powerful than his predecessors, but his rule is also more fragile. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long faced a crisis of legitimacy, but Xi’s transformation of China into a high-tech police state might hasten this crisis. These factors combine to make China more dangerous in the short term but also less competitive in the longer term. This means that the People’s Republic of China perceives an opportunity for “great renewal” even as it will be less powerful than was expected.